A high school friend’s suicide was the first time Chris Hubbard seriously thought about mental health. Years later it consumed his life, as he battled depression and anxiety and considered walking away from the NFL despite being set to sign a life-changing free agent contract with the Browns.
Hubbard got help — from a therapist provided by the team and his wife — and says he’s much better. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound offensive lineman chose to use his journey and platform to bring greater attention to mental illness and the resources available to those struggling.
“Anybody can go through it,” Hubbard told The Chronicle-Telegram last season. “My job is just to be there for them and make sure that they’re not alone.”
The work he started a couple of years ago is more important than ever, as America simultaneously deals with the unrelenting coronavirus pandemic and unwavering systemic racism.
“It’s been tough, but at the same time we’ve been over and over and overly communicating to people: We’re in the same boat that you’re in and we hear you and we are here for you,” Hubbard said this month in a phone interview. “That’s why I always extend my invitation, if you need someone to talk to, I’m willing to talk to you. Whatever you may be going through, I’ve given out my Twitter account, I’ve given out my Instagram account.
“People that just want to reach out, I have no problem listening, because sometimes that’s what a lot of people want you to do for them, just to be an open ear and to let them know that I’ve been in the same position that you’ve been in.”
July is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, which was created to bring awareness to the unique struggles that underrepresented groups face. Mental health advocates are calling for more specialized federal attention on Black suicides, including research funding, during these extremely difficult times.
“There has been a lot of complex grief and loss related to death, related to loss of jobs and loss of income,” Sean Joe, an expert on Black suicides at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Associated Press. “There’s a lot of hurt and pain in America going on right now, and you only are getting a sense of depth in the months ahead.”
Hubbard, 29, works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which raises awareness and provides support and education to communities across the country. He’s spoken to students at his high school in Georgia, done many interviews on the topic and used the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative to call attention to mental health and infertility awareness.
For Hubbard, the issues are connected.
Depression and anxiety weren’t a problem until he was in the NFL, Hubbard said. Adding to the new struggle were the infertility issues for him and wife Tamara, including a series of miscarriages.
“It played a really big role,” Hubbard said. “Just mentally and physically it wears on you because you’re hoping and wishing that you’re having a baby and you can’t conceive and you go through doctors and go through taking shots, and I watched her take shots.
“It wears on your husband, too, because you have to see her go through that pain and you don’t know what she’s thinking at that time or how she may feel.”
The Hubbards have a young son and share their infertility story to help couples experiencing similar difficulties.
Even after the birth of Creed Eason, Hubbard wasn’t himself. He unintentionally lost 20 pounds and was down to 285 as he weighed offers to leave the Steelers as a free agent and become a full-time starter for the first time. He signed a five-year, $36.5 million deal with the Browns on March 15, 2018, to be the right tackle.
“It was at a point where I didn’t want to play football, but my wife was telling me, ‘This is something you always wanted to do and something that’s important to you. So why not continue to go on and thrive and be that person and on top of that share your story,’” he said. “So that was one of the major things that motivated me and kept me driven.”
Hubbard met with a counselor, leaned on his family and developed a routine that includes reading the Bible. He credited the Browns with having a counselor before the NFL mandated such last season.
“Making it public was a hump for me to get over that, just to know that you have help around you and you have different resources that can help you out,” he said.
He’s using his experience to support others, especially those in the Black community, where a stigma toward mental illness persists. Black Americans are about half as likely as white Americans to use mental health services, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
The current and recent events in the country have raised the stress level for everyone, which is dangerous for those with mental health issues.
“I have my days where I don’t want to do nothing,” Hubbard said. “Although it may look good, like (professional athletes) have it all for being at this certain level, we’re just the same. We deal with the same struggles as anyone else.
“You just feel for people. You just feel how heavy that hurts a lot of people.”
Hubbard was scared about bringing the virus back to his wife and son, so he found ways to train for his seventh NFL season, third with the Browns, without leaving his property in Georgia. He couldn’t shield them from the reminders of police brutality and racial injustice.
The killing of George Floyd at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer May 25 was the tipping point for many and sparked nationwide protests. Hubbard made the 40-minute drive to Atlanta to witness the demonstrations.
“Just to see how many people took initiative to stand and to come together and say, hey, this can’t continue to go on,” he said. “Voices need to be heard. That togetherness, that stands alone itself in big words.
“For us athletes to come out and say enough is enough, that right there was powerful itself, too.”
Hubbard is among the many Browns players and staff to take an active role in the fight for equality. He and fellow lineman Kendall Lamm sent a letter to the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee supporting Senate Bill 256, which would abolish the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for kids, and grant parole eligibility for kids sentenced to extreme time in adult prison.
“You have 16-, 17- and 15-year-olds being in jail for lifelong sentences. That’s unfair to those kids,” Hubbard said. “We’ve been places and wrong spots before as kids and thank God we’ve made it out. Some kids were unfortunate and unlucky.
“But if they choose to make the right choices in the time that’s being served and make changes, they should be able to get parole and be out and to enjoy life and to make a change outside of what they’ve been through. I look at juveniles in jail now, they can make a difference in this world. They can make a huge difference.”
Hubbard said his family struggled through the unique offseason but has made progress in dealing with the challenges. While he’s looking forward to reuniting with teammates and regaining some sense of normalcy, he knows it won’t be business as usual.
“It’s still a fear, too. Because you still have to worry about the coronavirus and everything that’s going on,” he said. “It’ll be fun to be back, but I just know it won’t be the same as before. It’s really hard to think about right now.”
Hubbard started 13 games last year despite a couple of injuries and struggled. The Browns signed free agent Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal to replace him at right tackle.
Hubbard wanted to stay and accepted a pay cut. The new two-year deal guarantees him $1 million this season as part of a $2.15 million salary. He could be the swing tackle off the bench or join the competition to be the starting right guard.
“I’m glad we came to an agreement,” he said. “I got kinda nervous with what was going on. It’s just good to be back with Cleveland and being at home — that’s where I call home.”